In addition to state laws criminalizing child abuse, states have agencies, known as child protective services, that investigate suspected child abuse cases involving the child’s parent or guardian. When a suspected case of child abuse involves an adult other than the child’s parent or guardian, law enforcement agencies such as police departments typically conduct the investigation. An investigation may include a law officer or case worker visiting and interviewing the child. Parents, guardians, and other possible witnesses such as doctors or teachers also may be questioned during an investigation.
Once an investigation is completed, the child protective service or law enforcement agency determines whether the evidence substantiates child abuse. If it does, then the agency will intervene. There is a spectrum of intervention modalities. In less severe cases of child abuse—for example, when a parent unwittingly leaves a child in a car while making a quick stop in a grocery store—intervention may be nothing more than requiring the parent to meet with a social worker to learn about the dangers of leaving a child unattended. If it appears to the investigating agency that an abused child is in imminent danger, the agency may take the child from the parents and place the child temporarily in a foster home until the parents demonstrate their willingness to stop the abuse. In extreme cases of child abuse, the investigating agency may seek assistance from a court to terminate the parental rights. When this happens, the child may be placed for permanent adoption.
Child protective services, in addition to investigating allegations of child abuse, maintain records regarding child abuse. These records are kept in a central registry, and in some states, parties such as child care providers or adoption agencies have access to the central registry. The goal of the central registry is to help child protective services, and sometimes other parties, know whether an individual has a history of abusing children. Although this information can be invaluable in preventing future child abuse, central registries may contain false or unsubstantiated accounts of child abuse, implicating innocent individuals. For this reason, some groups oppose central registries and argue that child protective services have too much power. One such group, Victims of Child Abuse Laws (VOCAL), seeks a reform in child abuse laws to better protect the rights of parents, who may be falsely accused of child abuse or neglect.
VOCAL, and groups like it, maintain that it is too easy for false accusations about child abuse to lead to the removal of children from their parents and their homes. False reports of child abuse can come from children seeking attention or attempting to avoid reasonable forms of discipline. False reports of child abuse also may result from animosity between parents, such as when parents are in the midst of divorce and custody battles over their children. The evidence of child abuse is sometimes nothing more than a young child’s testimony. Proponents of child abuse law reform maintain that police and other officials can easily manipulate a young child to support allegations of child abuse. The ramifications of a false report of child abuse can be serious: officials may remove children from their homes and place them in foster care or permanent new adoptive homes, emotionally scarring both children and parents.
Another difficult issue in the arena of child abuse concerns discipline. There are many different views regarding what constitutes discipline and where the line should be drawn between reasonable parental discipline and child abuse. For example, some parents feel that spanking or hitting a child is abusive behavior; other parents rely on spanking, or the threat of a spanking, to teach children to obey and behave. Using physical measures to discipline children is known as corporal punishment. In trying to prevent child abuse, legal and governmental agencies attempt to balance the parents’ right to raise their children in the manner they feel is appropriate with the child’s right to be safe and unharmed.
Some forms of child abuse are caused not by a parent’s willful abuse, but rather, by a parent’s negligence. One common, and oftentimes tragic, form of neglect occurs when a parent accidentally leaves a sleeping baby in a car on a warm day. In the sun, the interior of a car can heat within minutes to more than 100 degrees, temperatures that a baby cannot survive. Whether to charge parents in these situations with child abuse is a divisive issue. Some peo-ple maintain that careless parents should be prosecuted; other people believe that a parent who loses a child due to the parent’s mistake suffers enough without being prosecuted.